Maine’s professional loggers are facing the toughest pulpwood and biomass markets in decades, so it may come as a surprise when veteran loggers say their industry desperately needs to train a new generation of mechanized logging equipment operators for the future.
If the logging industry is getting smaller due to difficult times, why train more operators? Simple: Most skilled operators are now at or nearing retirement age. Even if the industry contracts significantly, there will soon be a shortage of them.
An article that ran in the Bangor Daily News on Dec. 1 about the forces pulling apart the lives of Maine loggers revealed a poor outlook for Maine’s dwindling percentage of old-style chainsaw and cable skidder loggers, but did not address the outlook for Maine’s professional loggers who are fully mechanized and who comprise the majority of logging contractors in Maine.
While they, too, face challenges, their future is far brighter if the steps recommended by veteran loggers are followed.
I asked Steve Hanington, president of a forest management and timber harvesting company in Macwahoc Plantation called Hanington Brothers Inc., about his outlook.
“At some point there’s going to be this huge drop-off of experienced and trained loggers that are very cost-effective for the industry. They’re going to disappear, and if we don’t have a program in place to fill that demand, when it happens, we’re going to be in a lot worse shape than what is being predicted right now,” he said. He’s also a board member of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.
Nearly all logging operations in Maine — 90 percent — are now mechanized, according to a recent economic impact study conducted by the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, the University of Maine and Farm Credit East. Mechanized equipment includes feller bunchers, harvesters, and other highly sophisticated and expensive logging machines.
Without mechanization, the industry cannot fulfill market demand. A return to a largely conventional industry could lead to increased risk and injury rates.
It generally takes at least a year of training and experience before an operator becomes skilled enough to run this equipment safely and efficiently. And the cost for companies to train these operators themselves is approximately $100,000 each in the first year, which is unsustainable.
That is why the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine has partnered with the Maine Community College System to create Maine’s first mechanized logger training certificate program, which is scheduled to begin operating this year and move to new locations around the state each semester.
This new program will create the state’s first pathway approach for training new operators, and it will work in tandem with the state’s current vocational training system. For the first time, logging operators will be trained similarly to other advanced trade occupations with a high school and postsecondary approach.
Logger Gary Voisine of Voisine Bros. Inc. of Fort Kent, also a board member of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, told me the graduates of the program will be vital for replacing retiring operators, and will come to companies with enough skills to greatly reduce the time it will take to bring them up to speed as operators.
“It’s going to save us a lot of money in the long run,” Voisine said.
Having the next generation of operators is only the first step in preparing the industry for the future. Every Maine logger will tell you the biggest crisis right now is the lack of markets.
To properly manage forests, they need to be able to cut not only the large, high-quality trees suitable for lumber, but also to selectively weed out lower-quality trees to allow new and better growth.
To conduct this type of silviculture requires markets for low-value limbs, tops, chips and timber. Therefore, the recent closures and slowdowns at the Maine biomass electric plants and pulp and paper mills that consume large quantities of this wood fiber have been crippling for the logging industry.
There are no quick and easy solutions to improve those pulp and biomass markets, but that brings up the other thing Maine loggers need most for the future: active planning of a strategy and a business climate to ensure not only the health of their industry, but the entire forest products industry in Maine. This has never been done.
Now, for the first time, a comprehensive strategy for the state’s forest products industry is in the early stages of development through the efforts of a federal Economic Development Assessment Team task force.
At the same time, a special Commission to Study the Economic, Environmental and Energy Benefits of the Maine Biomass Industry established by the Legislature has been exploring a wide range of opportunities and strategies for the state’s biomass market.
The commission has now submitted a report to the Legislature outlining recommendations for encouraging and expanding the market.
Meanwhile, the Maine Forest Service is in the process of hiring a temporary point person – or a firm – to find ways to strengthen and expand Maine’s forest economy.
The goals of these moves include the following: sustaining Maine’s existing forest products businesses; attracting capital investments and developing greater economic prosperity in the forest products sector across the state for both existing and new businesses; supporting the revitalization of Maine’s rural communities as places where people want to live, work and visit; and supporting and encouraging development and commercialization of new and existing technologies and uses of wood fiber, including heat and power, building materials and biofuels.
These efforts will take time, and none are silver bullets, but taken together they can be important to revitalizing the forest products economy in Maine. To work, they will need the support of the state’s government, industries and residents.
In addition to planning, easing of tax and regulatory burdens may be required along with changes in existing laws and rules. To succeed, Maine needs to be ready to do more than talk and plan, but to act.
Much of the responsibility for combining these efforts into a workable and comprehensive strategy will lie with state lawmakers, and their commitment to the task will be essential for success.
Given a chance, there is little doubt that Maine loggers and the entire forest products value chain can flourish tomorrow if we take the right steps today.
Dana Doran is the executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.